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Recently I went to Philadelphia for a four day library conference. This one is about my first day in Philly, before the conference started. The city was not what I expected.
I arrived at the Philadelphia Airport Tuesday evening and hitched a ride into downtown Philly on their commuter rail. It took me directly into a subterranean stop that is now called Market East station, but is built under what had been the vast depot of the Reading Railroad (made famous by Monopoly). The massive pavilion above has now been converted into the Philadelphia Conference Center, where ACRL was to take place, and adjacent to and adjoining the hotel where I was staying. So I arrived at the station, walked up what seemed like two centuries of underground history, and directly into the hotel without feeling a hint of outside air. It was surreal, especially at night.
I struck out on foot that night in search of my first Philly cheesesteak sandwich, or as they simply call them locally, a steak. I’d been told by a former Philly local to head to a place called Jim’s Steaks on South Street. It was a good chance to explore the city on foot and see how it actually lives and breathes. Philly was nothing like I expected — all blue collar, Santa-booing meatheads. Instead I saw the quotient of hipsters on fixies I expect to see here at home, plus a community garden, and an anarchist bookstore. Swap the steak shops for taquerías, you’d be in San Francisco’s Mission District; swap them for vegan bakeries, you’d be in Portland, Oregon.
Jim’s Steaks was the antidote to this Hipsterdelphia. I walked up to the register to order, and the middle-aged local behind the counter (I’ll call him “Jim”) proceeded to ignore me while he finished a conversation with one of the other guys. Or, I thought I was just waiting until he finished what he was saying, but no. He just kept on talking, with me just a couple feet from him on the other side of the counter. Jim wouldn’t even turn his face my direction. He resolutely refused to acknowledge my existence. I should note that I’m the only customer in the store. This went on for more than one full, awkward minute. Now this is the Philly I had arrived expecting! Brusque assholes who wouldn’t give me the time of day. Here was authenticity. Thank you Jim.
Eventually the fry cook took pity on me, and summoned me over with a finger (not that one). I was supposed to order with him, and in their assembly line, I’d get passed down to the drink guy and then to Jim at the register. Didn’t matter that no one else was there — I still had to follow procedure. Once I had done that (note: I was not allowed to touch my beer until I had paid, even though they placed it on my tray), Jim was willing to acknowledge my existence. No mention of the prior awkwardness.
The steak, it should be said, was delish. I’d go back.
The next day I had to myself until the conference started in the late afternoon. Again I set out on foot, first finding a comfy coffeehouse (the negative Yelp reviews are amusing; accusations of hipsterdom abound, as if posting reviews on Yelp about the quality of their vegan goods isn’t an enormously hipster thing to do). It’s in a corner brick Victorian rowhouse in Philly’s gay district (Philly has a gay district? More things I did not know). Here the staff was actually friendly. Probably not natives. They made a solid cappuccino.
From there I was off to the ghastly but utterly fascinating Mütter Museum, a collection of human oddities (think strange skulls, deformed spines, babies in jars…) that was formed from the personal collection of 19th century physician Dr. Thomas Dent Mütter and has grown under the stewardship of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia. I’d entertain you with a collection of gory photographs of leather made from human flesh, a modern mummy, 19th century medical tools and all manner of human parts except the museum strictly forbade photography (not that that has stopped others; there’s plenty on flickr).
My museum trawling was not yet done; after that I walked to the Rosenbach Museum, on an elegant street of handsome rowhouses in the Rittenhouse Square district. The Rosenbachs were brothers engaged in the rare book trade in the first half of the twentieth century; they were extravagant bachelors, who entertained lavishly, enjoyed bourbon, pipes, and books, and made the savvy purchase of James Joyce’s handwritten Ulysses manuscript before the book became the icon it is today (amongst many other great purchases, including Herman Melville’s own bookcase, now filled with 1st edition copies of Moby Dick, on their ground floor). Their shops — in Philly and New York — were the locus of the American rare book trade for decades, and the collection of the Folger Library in Washington, DC and many other great private libraries were built by their acquisitions. The museum hosts hourly tours of their mansion and library, with exhibits on news coverage of the Civil War and Joyce’s years in Paris.
My final Wednesday stop before the conference started was lunch with an internet friend, Molly from yon Falling Molly blog. She’s mutual friends with my pal Jenny and we met up so she could teach me about Philly’s other local sandwich, roast pork with broccoli rabe. Because of legacy Quaker liquor laws, most small shops can’t get a liquor license, so they just let you bring in your own beer. So Molly arrived six-pack in hand and we chowed down on these massive, greasy, vinegary sandwiches. It took a couple hours to polish those monsters off (and the six-pack). Molly is both smart and funny; if you’re looking for an entertaining internet friend, you couldn’t do better.
After that I headed back to the conference for the opening keynote!
Normally I’m fairly conservative in my choice of movies to watch and books to read — I’ll read numerous reviews before giving something a chance. But I love the serendipity of the book drop, or, I should say, of clearing the book drop. Today a small book with a simple title and an author I knew nothing about caught my eye, thanks to nothing more than an arresting cover. It only took me five sentences to fall in love (despite the very French analogy at the end):
The shape of a city, as we all know, changes more rapidly than the heart of a mortal. However, it often happens that before being discarded, left behind to become the prey of its memories, the city — caught, like all other cities, in the vertiginous metamorphosis that characterizes the second half of our century — will have found ways to change a heart still young and impressionable just by subjecting it to its climate and landscape, and by leaving an imprint of its streets, boulevards, and parks on the most private thoughts and daydreams of its owner. It is not necessary to have lived there like an ordinary citizen; I even doubt that it would make much of a difference. The city’s influence will be much stronger, and perhaps longer, if it has remained partially hidden — if, because of some unusual circumstances, we have lived in its midst but never reached a degree of familiarity, much less of intimacy, if we never had the freedom, nor enough leisure time to walk through its neighborhoods aimlessly, to stroll its streets at will. It is possible that by making only certain concessions and without ever completely surrendering, the city has — just like a woman — tightened the threads spun by our daydreams around herself, and better adapted the rise and development of our desires to her rhythms and moods.
The book, I went on to find out, is a love letter and appreciation of the Loire Valley city of Nantes by Julien Gracq, a French writer, historian and literary critic. Though I’ve never been to Nantes, I appreciate Gracq’s clear affection of the secret city, the walking rhythm of urban life. This opening passage captured the spirit of the flâneur I have written about before, and the way I love not only San Francisco but other cities I have walked, however briefly, such as New York, Barcelona and Edinburgh. Ultimately, it represents the higher ideals of the livable streets movement I embrace, and why I believe cities, not suburbs, are the best mode of life for me.
In what little free time I seem to have, I hope to read this petit tome — even though I know nothing about where it will go. But that’s just like walking a city.
Today is Wednesday, so I should be publishing this week’s Diptych right now, on the subject of “Spring”. This being the vernal time of year, I saw plenty of inspiration this morning:
- Blue sky over the City, but dew on the ground;
- My daughter (3, and full of curls) dancing down the street in her sundress;
- Noe Street, shaded by trees and filled with blooming flowers;
- An older gentleman on the corner assembling bouquets, who gave my daughter a branch of lilac buds;
- Walking through a verdant Golden Gate Park on my way to work;
- Seeing Park & Rec prepping a public diamond for high school hardball.
Only catch? No camera! And I decided that my iPhone camera wouldn’t cut it.
Hopefully I’ll find as much inspiration tomorrow. I will also post a recap of my fantastic experience at the CARL Conference shortly.
Normally, a photo should be able to stand on its own merits, without need for explanation. But I do think that this week’s diptych — or at least my half of it — benefits from a bit of explanation. I was reminded again this morning of the interesting things you see and the interesting encounters you have when you take the time to walk about the City.
First, the subject of my photograph (the second image below) was suggested to me by a transient man who noticed me taking “arty” pictures of a weathered signpost. He told me if I wanted a really good picture, I should go across the street and look up, look for a sign high on the wall of the crêpe place on the corner.
Now, I actually knew what he was talking about because I had grown up in that same neighborhood, back when The Other was in its late 70’s and 1980s heyday, when it was the greatest underground comedy club in America. But I had forgotten about it, just as the City did when the club died at the end of that decade. “Entertainment nightly” indeed. Once upon a time.
Once again my gratitude goes out to @uncola for her contribution. About it, she said, “Note that on top of the sort of slow-destruction-of-childhood-whimsy-in-the-harsh-realities-of-the-environment thing, ‘where’ is spelled wrong.” Indeed.
Someone scrawled the phrase “Be a Flâneur” into wet sidewalk cement near my parents’ house. I’m not sure how long it has been encased in concrete, but I know I passed it many times before my curiosity got the best of me, and I googled the word “flâneur“.
I was more than a little enchanted by what I discovered. Adapted from a French noun for “stroller”, it was coined by the poet and writer Charles Baudelaire to mean “a person who walks the city in order to experience it”. Magic. I’ve loved walking cities my whole life; growing up I frequently walked home from elementary school via increasingly crooked routes that I called my “AdventureWALKS” (which I then wrote stories about after arriving home; I wonder if my mother saved any of these infantile attempts at literature?).
Now, my preferred form of transit is the bicycle, and I frequently carry my daughter to her preschool in a childseat. But yesterday threatened rain, so we took the train to school. I had an appointment downtown, so after leaving her behind, I hustled on to the financial district via subway. When I was done (getting a filling and finding out my new crown didn’t fit), I was downtown, a few miles from her school with a few hours to spare. And the promised rain was nowhere in sight. So I wandered back via streets big and little, boulevards and alleyways, as big as Market Street and as small as Maiden Lane — I became a flâneur, and lived the City.
As much as I love the bicycle, you see more on foot, moving a little slower, stopping when you want, and not having to dodge taxis and busses. Since I didn’t have my usually ubiquitous headphones, I was especially plugged into my environment — sights, sounds, and all the other senses mixed and mingled to let me know where I was. Thoughts both deep and fleeting get to mingle and float as you walk, slowly turning over and developing into something bigger. Blood flows through your veins a little quicker. Crisp December air refreshes the lungs. Long strides stretch tired legs.
My walk started in the heart of the Financial district, close to where the concrete canyons of Sansome and Montgomery originate off the diagonal slash of Market Street. I walked by the venerable and beloved Mechanics’ Institute Library, on Post Street (the City’s oldest library, predating San Francisco’s public library by more than a quarter century) before ducking into a store on Maiden Lane (Christmas shopping is upon us, after all). After shopping, I walked up Geary past (not into) Union Square. I still think the new design is unfortunate and uninviting, with an intimidating front face of concrete facing Geary. Then I followed the cable car path back down to Market Street.
Mid-Market remains a troubled area for San Francisco, but it makes a fascinating walk nonetheless, particularly with the current “Art in Storefronts” program adding color to the scene. Of course, I also had to trot into the Main Library on my way through — there is always something to look up or look for!
Walking through Hayes Valley after that was something of a revelation. It’s not an area I’m in very often, and even less often on foot. Now, the area has had cute boutiques and upscale restaurants for quite a while now (ever since the tear-down of the Central Freeway overpass that blighted the area), but it seems to have reached a critical mass in which the variety of stores and eateries both on and off of Hayes Street are feeding off of each other’s success in drawing foot traffic to the area. It was midday on a Tuesday and the sidewalks were busy. I spent a few minutes sitting on a bright green bench studying a bright green door in an otherwise gray storefront. I felt simply enchanted by the addition of color to gray.
Taking in the contrast of color I had a mini-epiphany — part of the reason that San Francisco’s Victorians and Edwardians are so lively and lovely is the contrast between the rich colors in which they are painted and the frequently silver-gray sky settled in above our heads. Civic Center is a collection of handsome, gray beaux-arts beauties, from City Hall to the Old Main Library (now the Asian Art Museum) and the War Memorial Opera House. But the European-style boulevards and open areas of Civic Center often seem lifeless, and it is because the opulent stone buildings look drab when matched with our gray sky. But our Victorians, our wonderful, colorful, bursting Victorians — even the modest ones, the slightly faded ones — sing out under our silver sphere.
I got to enjoy many of those Victorians in my remaining walk up from Hayes Valley into the Haight and Castro, with little surprises and architectural novelties along the way. Walking on little streets you see also unexpected glimpses of art and ideas shared with passers-by.
And of course, from downtown to uptown the best part of the walk was always the people-watching. I won’t elaborate except to say it is delightful to see how meaningless stereotypes can be — you get little windows into other people’s worlds as you walk, snippets of conversations, glimpses of activity and you’re reminded of the infinite possibilities in life and how rarely anyone fits into a singular box — even in just a moment of time.
Near the end of my walk was one of my favorite San Francisco features — obscure public stairs. A hilly city, San Francisco has many shortcuts cut between houses, stone and wood stairways, some with their own street names and addresses (there is something wonderfully romantic and old-fashioned about a street that can only be traversed by foot — no cars, no exhaust, only hustle). Someday I hope to have find and walk them all (this website should help me locate them).
It is rare to have as much free time as I did yesterday, but even when it’s hard to scrape together time it’s always worth remembering to walk a little. Walk alone, or walk with a friend, walk for miles or walk a few blocks, and walk to remind yourself how a city breathes and feels. And let’s ditch the term “pedestrian” — it is so pejorative, an unfortunate surrogate for “bland”, and remember to all be flâneurs instead.